How federal return-to-workplace plans differ by department

One of Canada's major federal public service unions says while flexibility is an important part of the gradual return to the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic, clearer guidelines are needed to avoid a "free-for-all."

Major union wants some areas of consistency

A worker enters a federal government building in Ottawa Oct. 6, 2021, the day Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that all federal government public servants will require COVID-19 shots. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

It's been a month since the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) ordered federal employers to move ahead with their plans to get federal employees back behind their desks.

Each department was told to come up with their own plans and based on a survey of several departments by CBC, those plans vary.

One of Canada's major federal public service unions said while flexibility is an important part of the gradual return to the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic, clearer guidelines are needed to avoid a "free-for-all."

"From a consultation perspective, that makes it very difficult where you're dealing with 46 different departments and agencies in the National Capital Region," said Jennifer Carr, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service (PIPSC).

Carr said one element that could be standardized is the notice period employees are given before returning to the office. She said some departments are giving employees as much as two months' notice, while others are asking employees to return within days.

Similarly, the number of days per week that employees are expected to be in the office differs widely, Carr said.

"We have had some employers who have basically said, 'We want you in three days a week,' just kind of indiscriminately."

Ottawa's Tunney's Pasture federal government complex in April 2020. (Émilien Juteau/Radio-Canada)

TBS says it supports hybrid model

In a statement, TBS said it supports such hybrid models where appropriate and is taking input from public health experts, as well as occupational health and safety committees.

"There is no one-size-fits-all approach," according to a statement from TBS, which oversees the federal workforce.

Carr said that range of policies could potentially prompt some employees to seek job opportunities in other departments where the situation is more to their liking.

"They're going to seek out those departments that offer the most flexibility, so we might see vast holes in certain departments who are going to stick to their guns and try to go back to a traditional model," said Carr.

The Treasury Board said "hybrid is the heart of our workplace planning" for its own employees and its own transition will take place gradually "over the next several weeks and months."

President of the Treasury Board Mona Fortier leaves a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill March 30, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Different departments, different approaches

CBC News reached out to various federal departments for information about their plans for getting employees back to the workplace.

While some departments have already reopened workplaces to employees who feel comfortable returning, others describe a more gradual process that will continue into the fall with the implementation of hybrid work models.

  • The Canada Revenue Agency said it is not providing a timeline. 
  • The Department of Canadian Heritage said employees who wish to return to the workplace can do so as of April 4, while following public health guidelines.
  • The Department of Finance said it began a process of allowing some employees to return to the workplace in February, following the TBS directive, and is planning a longer-term shift to hybrid work.
  • The Department of Justice said it's possible more employees will return to its offices in person as "early as the beginning of summer," though no specific timeline has been established. There are processes in place to allow some employees to return now, according to the department.
  • The Department of National Defence said it will continue to support a hybrid work model where operational requirements allow.
  • The Department of Public Safety said its transition to a hybrid workforce framework will take place "between Spring and Fall of 2022."
  • Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) said it already has a large number of employees coming to the office, including those who work at Service Canada and Passport Canada centres. In a statement, an ESDC spokesperson said a pilot project launched on March 28 will help ESDC test hybrid work teams ahead of a transition to "our flexible work model" by Labour Day. In the meantime, ESDC has begun allowing employees to return voluntarily.
  • Environment and Climate Change Canada said employees who experienced challenges with remote work are back in the office, and plans are underway to increase occupancy rates "in the weeks and months to come."
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada employees began returning to the office in March and that gradual return continues.
  • A statement from Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada said both organizations are resuming re-entry plans "including a further increase in occupancy of federal worksites beginning this spring using the phased approach."
  • Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said its move to a hybrid approach "in the coming months." The process will be guided by operational needs and public health advice.
  • Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada are working on a gradual return to the workplace.
  • Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada said it will complete the first phase of its return to the workplace by April 13, starting at 10 per cent of pre-pandemic office occupancy. Employees are being given four weeks advance notice of their scheduled return date.
  • Public Services and Procurement Canada is planning "to continue to support a hybrid workforce" and says it has "no specific timelines" for its gradual transition.
  • Transport Canada said it will be sharing its organizational vision with employees "in due course."
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